(Editor's Note: This piece first appeared in the Washington Examiner on February 5, 2018).
In case you were wondering, Eliot Cohen does not like Donald Trump.
In his estimation, Trump is “dumb, vicious, lecherous, and unsuccessful.” He’s a “contemptible president,” a “scoundrel.” Not wanting to risk ambiguity, Cohen asserts there is “nothing admirable about Donald Trump” and confidently predicts that “no enduring good can come of him.”
As for the “cowards” and “opportunists” who aided and abetted Trump, there will be a day of reckoning when they will get their just desserts, we are told.
Commentators frequently dismiss Trump in terms like this. And the frequency has only increased in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.
Less clear is why you should care.
The way in which Cohen denounces Trump illustrates a tendency pervasive among political combatants at present to, in the words of Livy, “play the tyrant” against their opponents.
And therein lies the problem. This common tendency toward tyranny poses the biggest threat to American democracy in the 21st century. Not Trump.
By trying to delegitimize those with whom they disagree, commentators like Cohen shrink the political sphere to deny their opponents the right to participate in the first place. In the process, they conveniently sidestep the need to engage in a substantive debate over what’s acceptable presidential behavior or what constitutes good public policy.
According to such a view, political institutions like Congress and the presidency are places where an enlightened few gather to make decisions in pursuit of a universal truth. Only those graced with the intellect and wisdom to discern that truth are allowed to participate in the process. Everyone else – including the president, if necessary – should be blocked from entering.
By defining politics in this way, Cohen conveniently places his opponents outside of the political sphere altogether. His contention that Trump is “inimical to democracy” makes more sense when seen in this light. Trump isn’t allowed to participate in politics despite being duly-elected precisely because he exists outside of what Cohen considers legitimate politics. Consequently, his participation in the political debate can only harm the process.
Yet in denouncing Trump, Cohen engages in precisely the kind of behavior and exclusionary politics that he condemns. Consider his description of the political debate as a split between “those who draw a line” in opposition to Trump and “the power-sick.” Cohen casts this divide as one between “those obsessed with anxiety, hatred, and resentment, and those who can hear Lincoln’s call to the better angels of our nature.”
Trump is deserving of scorn in Cohen’s eyes because he is on the wrong side of this divide. The fact that Trump was elected pursuant to a process laid out in the Constitution makes no difference for Cohen. He is a threat to the political system and must be stopped.
There are two problems with seeing politics in this way.
First, it overlooks the people who voted for Trump. For Cohen, these people are an abstraction. He does not see them as individuals and communities with legitimate critiques of the status quo ante Trump. Cohen sees instead a homogenous mass of noble-souled common-folk against whom injustices are daily perpetrated by Trump and his henchmen. Any message they were trying to send by voting for Trump doesn’t matter because they are now his victims.
Yet Cohen weakens the foundation of republican self-government when he dismisses Americans with whom he disagrees in this way. The irony is that in doing so, Cohen makes it more likely that outsiders like Trump will be elected president in the future. This is because the political system grows unresponsive to change when politics is defined in this way. This inhibits incremental change and leads to the kinds of populist moments people like Cohen fear most.
Populist unrest should alert political elites that the system is not working and needs to be reformed. Ignoring popular frustration and opposing reforms is not sustainable. It only makes radical change more likely in the future.
Second, defining politics as the implementation of universal truth inevitably ends in denying a place in it to one’s political opponents. And by barring those with whom we disagree from the political debate, we lose sight of the way in which conducting politics helps us realize, in the words of James Madison, “justice and the general good.” As Madison writes in Federalist 51, “In the extended republic of the United States, and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good.”
From Cohen’s perspective, it is no longer necessary to include one’s opponents in the regular operation of government because politics is no longer needed to identify “justice and the general good.” Cohen already knows what that means.
Cohen’s confidence notwithstanding, we would all do well to heed Livy’s warning:
“True moderation in the defense of political liberties is indeed a difficult thing: pretending to want fair shares for all, every man raises himself by depressing his neighbor; our anxiety to avoid oppression leads us to practice it ourselves; the injustice we repel we visit in turn on others, as if there were no choice except either to do it or to suffer it.”
American democracy is resilient. It is so because individual Americans are able to engage in deeply divisive debates within the institutions created by the Constitution. It will be resilient so long as we refrain from delegitimizing those with whom we disagree.
To that end, Cohen would do well to spend less time talking about the fact that he dislikes Trump and more time talking about the areas where he and Trump disagree. That kind of debate, no doubt still contentious, is the very essence of politics; allowing it to take place is vital to identifying those areas where Americans must compromise with one another in pursuit of justice and the general good.